Battered by rising pension costs, the county Board of Supervisors is expected Tuesday to discuss methods to change the way it negotiates with its employee unions.
The deliberations will include a look at the way the county interprets and implements the voter-approved prevailing wage ordinance.
Like other governments across the state, San Luis Obispo County is facing problems meeting the costs of long-term employees who are retiring with what many consider too-generous benefits, especially when contrasted with the private sector.
About 60 percent of the county’s budget goes to labor costs, including benefits, according to a staff report from Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz. Of the county’s 2,300 employees, 1,977 — 85 percent — are represented by unions.
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The county has “an ongoing structural budget deficit of $10 million to $15 million,” Douglas-Schatz wrote, and “it is illogical to automatically pay across-the-board salary increases.”
Current salaries and benefits were negotiated by employee unions and the county’s Administrative Office. But over the past year, supervisors have transferred the responsibility for labor negotiations to Douglas-Schatz, who in turn has, at the board’s direction, hired a consultant.
In her memo, Douglas-Schatz writes of the shift being caused by “significant issues with the labor relations program.”
In a telephone interview with The Tribune, she said she was alluding to the fact that the former management negotiator, Gail Wilcox, then the assistant county administrator, was having an affair with a union negotiator.
The ensuing scandal cost Wilcox her job. Her boss, David Edge, also was fired, although the Board of Supervisors said he was let go because of differences in management philosophy and style.
In any event, the departure of top county administrators provided “a good opportunity” to revisit the way the county negotiates with its employees, Douglas-Schatz said.
The board has already shown considerable interest in trying to negotiate a two-tier pension system, under which newly hired employees would receive benefits that are less generous than current employees.
But the most significant part of the discussion Tuesday might center on the way the prevailing wage ordinance is interpreted.
Voters approved the ordinance in the 1970s in an effort to make sure public employees are compensated as well as those in the private sector.
Over time, that dynamic has flipped, and some in the private sector now look with envy and resentment at public employees and their benefits.
Douglas-Schatz does not accuse Edge and Wilcox or previous boards of “giving away the store” to employee unions in approving these contracts. She said it is the nature of unions to seek the best deal for their members, and governments had more money in the early part of this decade.
Nonetheless, times have changed for the worse, and the government has to take that into account, she said.
“It is highly doubtful that that the voters intended to virtually guarantee increases year after year without considering the financial state of the county,” Douglas-Schatz wrote in her staff report.
Among the several components of labor negotiations she and the board will examine are the so-called “comparable counties” — other governments with which San Luis Obispo County unions compare themselves for purposes of determining how much money they should make and what their benefits should be.
In recent years, various San Luis Obispo County public employee unions have compared themselves with wealthy counties such as Sonoma and Napa.
Douglas-Schatz added that she has seen no evidence that the county has included the private sector for comparison, as the prevailing wage ordinance suggests it should do.
Douglas-Schatz stressed that the county values its labor force but must be realistic.
Supervisor Adam Hill agreed and added that the county wants to deal with labor relations “in a rational universe.”
Hill said he wants the county to fix its labor relations problems before changes to the prevailing wage ordinance end up on a ballot.